While sparkling wine’s appeal as a toast-worthy, special-occasion beverage can’t be denied, it is finally becoming accepted as, well, wine. Consumers have realized that sparklers can and should be uncorked and enjoyed equally and as often as a bottle of white or red wine.
Its crisp acidity and refreshing, palate-scrubbing effervescence make sparkling wine easy to pair with food. And with styles ranging from soft and fruity to complex and yeasty, not to mention red, dry and tannic, there’s a sparkling wine for every meal, taste and occasion.
When in comes to selling sparkling wine, “Price is usually the deciding factor in bubbles, knowledge is next,” says Peter Kasperski, owner of Ciao Cowboy, a 177-seat modern American restaurant in Scottsdale, AZ. And prosecco outsells all other Italian sparklers combined because of its name recognition, he notes.
Cowboy Ciao offers several, including the NV Col Fondo Ca’dei Zago prosecco ($37), a rare, biodynamic-produced wine with a deliberately cloudy appearance as it’s bottled on the sediment. The restaurant offers three sparkling wines by the glass priced from $10 to $25, and 90 bottles, ranging from a $22 bottle of NV Sovetskoe semi-dry aligoté and chardonnay blend from Belarus, to a $750 bottle of 1997 Salon Blanc de Blancs Champagne.
The 2011 Huber Brut rosé ($31 a bottle) from Austria, a blend of zweigelt and pinot noir, is a top seller, as is the NV Dr. Loosen Sekt, a riesling-based bottle from Germany’s Mosel region. Kasperski calls the latter “a perfect transition wine for the sparkling novice: user-friendly, just a hint of sweetness, light and easy to drink.”
Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood, a New York-style steakhouse at the Hilton Sandestin in Miramar Beach, FL, offers five sparkling wines by the glass, priced from $12 to $20, and 22 by the bottle priced $43 to $750. Sommelier Myres McDougal has witnessed the ebb and flow of sparkling wine trends during the past decade.
“First it was prosecco; light on its feet and your wallet,” he says. Seagar’s stocks the NV Ruffino prosecco, which it sells for $12 a glass and $45 a bottle. “Then consumers’ palates strived for something more complex, and found cava at about the same price.”
Traditional-method cava boasts aged-derived notes of almond, crème brûlée and brioche, McDougal notes. Cava fans tend to eventually move to Champagne and other similar wines more quickly than guests who gravitate towards fruit-forward, lean prosecco produced via the Charmat method (tank vs. bottle fermentation), he adds.
NV Torre Oria cava ($30 a bottle) is the top-selling sparkling wine at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. This is largely due to brunch sales of mimosas, according to Dan Davis, “wine guy” at the haute Creole restaurant.He has witnessed a trend akin to the ABC (“anything but chardonnay”) philosophy: “Many consumers are turning on to the ‘not Champagne’,” opting for other sparkling wines such as cava, prosecco and those from other regions. “They are starting to ask for these wines even before looking at the list.”
The second best-selling sparkling wine at Commander’s Palace is a custom cuvee by California’s Iron Horse ($65 a bottle), a rosé blanc de noirs comprised of nearly 98% pinot noir. “I find that pinot noir from the very cold microclimate of the Green Valley of Russian River Valley is particularly suited to sparkling-wine production, producing lovely fruit and nervous acidity,” Davis says.
Commander’s Palace has seven sparkling wines by the glass priced $7.50 to $45, and 175 bottles priced $28 to $2,250. The selection includes 50 large-format bottles and 95 vintage selections dating back to 1971.
Kaperski has also noticed an increase in sales of rosé and sparkling shiraz, malbec and Lambrusco (See sidebar “Spakling reds popping up,” left.)
There’s also crémant sparkling wines from France, made in the same method—and sometimes with the same grapes—as Champagne. These offer guests the elegance and complexity of their more-exclusive cousin, but often at a lower price point.
Growing interest in grower Champagnes
Also on the rise is the popularity—and availability—of grower Champagnes, referred to in French as Récoltant-Manipulant, or “RM.” These wines have the distinction of containing entirely estate-grown grapes—a common practice in many other wine regions of the world, but not historically in Champagne, where winemakers typically buy grapes from other growers.
Grower Champagnes appeal to sommeliers and oenophiles for their ability to better express terroir. Subject to less consistency and more vintage variation than other house styles, they are an intriguing gamble.
At Cowboy Ciao, grower selections from Champagne houses Aubry and Egly-Ouriet are house favorites. But Kasperski notes that grower Champagnes often require a hand sell.
Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood’s McDougal sees an uptick in this style of Champagne. But he agrees with Kasperski that it doesn’t sell itself.
“Grower Champagne is just starting to find its way onto the local market,” McDougal says, “but for now it is the sommelier’s task to see if the guest is open to trying something delicious but unfamiliar.” Seagar’s features the traditionally blended NV Bruno Paillard Brut ($90 a bottle.)
As its name would suggest, RM Champagne Salon’s specialty is grower Champagne. Staff at the 50-seat wine bar in Chicago will take the time to explain to guests exactly what the term means, and its significance compared to other styles.
“I think that everyone likes to find something that’s just a little bit different and off the beaten paths,” notes general manager Timothy Epp. RM Champagne Salon offers 12 sparkling wines by the glass priced $10 to $29, and about 40 options by the bottle, starting at $40.
RM Champagne Salon staff converse with guests using clear, easy-to-understand language. “We like to have our guests communicate what they are looking for, even if they’re not exactly sure, and translate and apply that to our current offerings,” explains Epp. “We’re the navigators and try to get them exactly where they want to go.”
Commander’s Palace, which sells 20 growers’ selections, has found that taste tests work well to introduce an unfamiliar guest to a grower Champagne. Tasting also helps customers distinguish the styles and flavors of all of the various sparkling wines on the menu, Davis says.
Cocktails and punches with sizzle
Sparkling wine-based libations and punches offer a fun way to promote bubbles. Bourgeois Pig, a 56-seat wine bar in New York, has six effervescent elixirs, priced at $13 each, and four Champagne punches priced at $40 for two to four servings.
Most popular, according to head bartender Andrea-Dawn Sabino, are the Bourgeois Royale, with Champagne and a strawberry reduction; Provence Punch, with elderflower, white peach, lemon, orange bitters and Champagne; and the citrusy and floral Marie Antoinette, with blood orange, elderflower, oranges bitters and Champagne. Sparkling wine also factors into La Pêche Royale, a beer-tail that tops peach lambic with Champagne.
Bourgeois Pig also offers two sparkling wines by the glass, the pinot blanc-based NV Jean Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Reserve ($13), and Domaine de Vieux Pressoir Brut Rosé, a cabernet franc-based sparkler from Saumur in France’s Loire Valley, and six by the bottle, priced $56 to $140.
RM features two sparkling cocktails: The RM 75 ($12) tops Aviation gin and a house-made grapefruit shrub with JCB No. 69 Brut Rosé Crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy, France. The La Ville Blanche ($12) pours Dopf au Moulin Crémant d’Alsace from Alsace, France, over Troy & Sons white whiskey, Hennessey Black cognac, Carpano Bianco, Bénédictine and grapefruit bitters.
Whether enjoyed in a flute or traditional wine glass, by itself or with other ingredients delivered via an intoxicatingly aromatic trail of effervescence, sparkling wine enhances any occasion. “I think that people are coming to realize that Champagne [and sparkling wine] doesn’t have to be just for special occasions,” notes Epp. “It can be enjoyed all the time—and it should be.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter or Instagram @kmagyarics.
SPARKLING REDS POPPING UP
Red bubbles offer the weight, concentration and structure of still red wines, but with a mouthwatering effervescence that makes them fitting partners with rich, meaty dishes. Sparkling malbec and shiraz, as well as a variety of indigenous Italian varietals, are increasingly popping up on wine lists across the country.
At The Partisan, a 100-seat charcuterie-focused restaurant in Washington, D.C., operated by Neighborhood Restaurant Group, wine director Brent Kroll has six Lambruscos on the menu, priced $35 to $40 a bottle. These include the 2012 Fiorini Becco Rosso ($35 a bottle), a blend of 80% grasparossa di castelvetro and 20% lancellota, and the 2012 Donelli ($40 a bottle), a blend of 80% lambrusco di sorbara and 20% salamino.
Lambrusco hails from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, and modern styles have a clean—not cloying—finish. “It’s perfect with charcuterie because it’s acidic and tannic,” says Kroll. “Its fruitiness and perceived sweetness is a great contrast to the savory meat.” — KAM
FRESH FIZZ OPTIONS
Just in time for holiday gatherings, a few recently released offerings are ready to be uncorked. New Zealand winery Kim Crawford just launched the 2009 Kim Crawford Fizz, a traditional-method sparkling wine that’s part of the winery’s limited-production Small Parcels wines. Comprised of 40% chardonnay and 60% pinot noir, with a suggested retail price of $35, Fizz has a bright gold color, aromas of citrus, apple and white peach, mineral notes on the palate and a soft finish. The wine’s moniker is a reference to the nickname of Kim Crawford’s winery host Felicity Nelson, and it’s recommended as an aperitif with finger foods, or paired with seafood or duck.
Moët & Chandon Ice Imperial, which retails for $65, is the first Champagne created specifically to be enjoyed over ice. When creating the dosage, which is higher than a brut, chef de cave Benoit Gouez and the rest of the winemaking team were mindful of the effect of melting ice in the glass.
“Adding ice would lower the wine’s temperature and soften flavors,” explains regional marketing director Donae Burston. “So they created a richer blend.” The Champagne is made from primarily red grapes—pinot noir for intensity and pinot meunier for fleshy roundness—with 10% to 20% chardonnay grapes to add freshness and acidity.
Ice Imperial can be sipped by itself or mixed with fruits and herbs including mint, lime, strawberries and raspberries. Burston advises eschewing the flute, however: “We recommend using a large cabernet-style wine glass, which make room for the addition of ice, and allows the wine to open up in the glass.”
Anna de Codorníu Brut was the first cava to incorporate chardonnay into the blend. The bottle has received a seasonal facelift, with a white bottle, label and foil. The Spanish sparkling wine is a blend of 70% chardonnay and 30% parellada, with a pale yellow straw hue, aromas of pineapple, grapefruit and lime and a citrusy, soft elegance on the palate. Anna de Codorníu Brut is recommended as an aperitif, or with sushi, sashimi and other seafood and shellfish, as well as lightly spiced carpaccio; it retails for $13.—KAM